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MOOC Professors Claim No Responsibility for How Courses Are Used

Robert Ghrist teaching at the U. of Pennsylvania. (Kelsh Wilson Design)

Robert Ghrist teaching at the U. of Pennsylvania. (Kelsh Wilson Design)

Robert Ghrist, a professor of mathematics and electrical and systems engineering at the University of Pennsylvania, knows that wielding vast networks on behalf of nonuniversity benefactors can be tricky business.

Mr. Ghrist specializes in applied topology, an abstract math field. In practice, topological math can help someone harness huge collections of sensory inputs—like those collected by cellphones, for example—to model large environments and solve problems.

The Department of Defense has enlisted Mr. Ghrist to do research along those lines. The Penn professor knows he has little power over how the Pentagon might use his insights. But he says that no longer bothers him.

“I have long ago dealt with the issue of: What if something I create is put to bad use?” the mathematician says. “And I have found that, throughout history, the benefit of building good things outweighed the hazards,” he says, citing lasers and the Internet as net-positive inventions despite ample opportunity for abuse. “That’s true in my research; it’s also true in my teaching.”

That ethical dilemma became relevant to Mr. Ghrist’s teaching only recently, when he began teaching a massive open online course on single-variable calculus through Coursera, the Silicon Valley-based MOOC company.

A group of philosophy professors at San Jose State University last month raised concerns to Michael Sandel, a government professor at Harvard, for his offering a MOOC through another provider, the nonprofit edX. The administration at San Jose State is encouraging its faculty members to use edX courses in their own teaching.

San Jose State is one of the first universities to integrate MOOCs into its traditional curriculum. The major MOOC providers have indicated that licensing their courses to universities might become a key part of their business models.

In an open letter, the philosophy professors warned that such collaboration could mark beginning of a long-term effort to “replace professors, dismantle departments, and provide a diminished education for students in public universities.”

In a provocative twist, the professors addressed the letter to Mr. Sandel, implying that, by getting in bed with edX, their Harvard colleague would be culpable if their dystopian scenario came true.

When it comes to technology tools aimed at reducing operating costs, it is not uncommon for professors to distrust the intentions of university administrators—especially in California, where years of budget cuts have made faculty members especially leery of such “disruptive innovations.”

But the San Jose State philosophy professors’ decision to address Mr. Sandel directly introduced a new question: Are professors who develop and teach MOOCs responsible for how those MOOCs are used?

“No, absolutely not,” says Mohamed A. Noor, a professor of biology at Duke University.

Mr. Noor teaches a MOOC through Coursera, called “Introduction to Genetics and Evolution.” The course is one of five Coursera MOOCs so far that have earned an endorsement from the American Council on Education, a Washington-based group that advises college presidents on policy. (Mr. Ghrist’s calculus course is another.) The council reviewed the courses and determined that students who pass them deserve formal credit toward a degree, making those five perhaps the most likely MOOCs to be adopted, in some way, by other universities.

To be clear, Mr. Noor says he believes dismantling departments and replacing them with MOOCs would be “reckless.” But the Duke professor also believes that, in such a case, “the fault lies with the reckless administration,” and not the professor who furnished the MOOC to the vendor that furnished the MOOC to the administration.

“I don’t see it as particularly my business how people use the stuff once I put it out there,” Mr. Noor says—though he adds that if dismantling departments were all a MOOC was being used for, “then I’d stop.”

Really, though, it is a university’s faculty, and not technology vendors and their collaborators, that is responsible for reining in reckless administrative efforts, says Mr. Noor. “Ultimately, faculty at individual colleges need to be the driving force behind what students at their campuses are using,” he says.

“And if that’s not the case” at San Jose State, says Mr. Noor, then MOOCs are “the least of the faculty’s problems.”

Granted, much of the philosophy professors’ letter was devoted to criticizing their university’s administration and laying out a general case against plugging a Harvard course into the San Jose State curriculum, particularly in a humanities discipline. The decision to take aim at Mr. Sandel seemed to be a publicity tactic, and not necessarily an attempt to tarnish all MOOC professors.

In interviews with The Chronicle, the professors who created the MOOCs that have been approved by the American Council on Education nevertheless rushed to Mr. Sandel’s defense, and to their own.

Roger Barr, a professor of biomedical engineering at Duke, says his professional obligation is to the students taking his MOOC on bioelectricity, not to colleagues at other institutions that might be advised by their superiors to use it. “I see my job as teaching students,” says Mr. Barr, “not protecting faculty.”

Sarah Eichhorn, a math lecturer at the University of California at Irvine, says she sees creating a MOOC as roughly equivalent to writing a textbook, or producing open resources for other teachers.

Ms. Eichhorn says she was surprised when the San Jose State philosophy professors went after Mr. Sandel. “I think it’s a professor’s job to make education available,” she says, “not to restrict it.”

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